Friday, July 1, 2011 | Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed Orange County labor leader Nick Berardino to the Orange County Fair Board.

The appointment of Berardino, 62, general manager of the nearly 18,000-member Orange County Employees Association, is sure to alter the political balance on the board, which in recent years has been dominated by influential GOP donors like Dale Dykema, Kristina Dodge, Joyce Tucker and Mary Young.

The board governs the OC Fair and Event Center, which runs the 150-acre property in Costa Mesa that is home to the annual summer fair. For decades, the property also has been home to the OC Marketplace weekend swap meet.

The Fair Board has come under fire over the past two years because of a poorly planned effort, led by current president David Ellis, to privatize the property.

The idea blew up almost as soon as it was conceived when allegations of conflicts of interest were aimed at the Fair Board. Questions immediately arose about how members decided to privatize the property without public debate and whether official resources were used to lobby for a sale that would benefit directors.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas launched an investigation and cleared the Fair Board members 1½ years later. A Voice of OC investigation, however, found flaws in Rackauckas’ probe.

Privatization hopes were dashed last month when the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled against the proposed sale of the fairgrounds to a private bidder, Facilities Management West.

Now attention is refocusing on the fairgrounds’ current operations as well as its board.

In the wake of a state court action killing the sale last month, Sandy Genis, president of the OC Fairgrounds Preservation Society, said the group would now renew its focus on exposing the current administration’s mismanagement of the property.

Berardino will likely be asking many of the same questions that have been posed by the activists.

“I think it’s time to usher in an era of transparency and improve access to the community,” Berardino said. He added he especially wants to ensure that the “underserved are going to have an opportunity to enjoy this valuable community asset.”

While Berardino was careful to not accuse fair board members of any wrongdoing, he wasn’t shy about saying that he would be asking lots of questions.

“I’ll reserve my opinion until I have the opportunity to get all the facts and review them and to have a thorough understanding of everything that’s taken place, why it’s taken place and how it’s taken place,” he said. “I am concerned about what’s been happening, and that’s why I want to discover every single detail.”

Berardino said he already has a message for Orange County Fair and Events Center CEO Steve Beazley: “On any request that I make for a complete and total disclosure of all the facts, ‘no’ will not be an acceptable answer.”

Current Fair Board President Dave Ellis is still hesitant to talk about the privatization proposal that lighted the fuse for selling state fairgrounds across California. But he welcomed the addition of Berardino, saying that the Fair Board isn’t a partisan position despite the GOP credentials of most board members.

“We all want to help our community,” Ellis said.

Berardino is “a bright guy from what I read,” Ellis said. “He runs a strong organization. He’s a community guy, and I think he’s going to be a wonderful board member. I can’t wait to meet him.”

Ellis said that despite the controversies and plans to sell the fairgrounds, attendance for the past two fairs has been record-setting. He said profitability is good, money is going back into the property for upgrades and signature events like the Barrett Jackson car show are taking hold.

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